High-impact recruiting class has Commodores optimistic
The top three scorers are gone. The top four rebounders are gone. The team finished 13th in the SEC. Only one returning player averaged more than 5.7 points per game.
Yet the belief is that Vanderbilt will be one of the most improved teams in the SEC. The reasons: The arrival of a three-man recruiting class that features two McDonald’s All-Americans and the addition of two impact transfers who sat out last season.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bryce Drew
2017-18 RECORD (SEC): 12-20 (6-12)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: None
G Matthew Fisher-Davis (11.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
G Riley LaChance (14.1 ppg, 3.2 apg)
F Jeff Roberson (16.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
G Payton Willis (5.1 ppg)
Simi Shittu arrives as the highest-ranked Vanderbilt recruit in at least five decades. The 6'10", 240-pound, well-sculpted Canadian — ranked No. 11 in the final 247Sports Composite — boasts a versatile skill set that allows him to play all over the court. “He can play the 1 through the 5,” says coach Bryce Drew. “He is like a point forward. He will handle the ball some but can also play inside. He can do a little bit of everything.”
And the hope is that Shittu will be able to do everything by the time the season starts. He tore his ACL last December and missed most of his senior season at Vermont Academy. “He should be ready,” Drew said in late June. “He looks great. Right on pace.”
Shittu, assuming he’s healthy, likely will be joined in the frontcourt by Yanni Wetzell, a 6'10" post player who averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds two years ago at Division II St. Mary’s (Texas) University.
“He is extremely skilled,” Drew says. “Passes well and has a good feel for the game. He’s a big who can stretch the defense with his ability to make 3s.”
Clevon Brown, one of the team’s best athletes, failed to take a big step forward as a sophomore despite seeing his minutes increase from 7.6 to 17.0. He showed a nice touch around the rim at times, but he too often settled for shots beyond the arc. The staff remains high on Ejike Obinna, but the 6'10" sophomore center is still very raw.
Darius Garland has yet to play a minute in a Vanderbilt uniform but is already one of the most popular players in school history. The five-star recruit from nearby Brentwood, Tenn., re-energized the fan base when he picked Vanderbilt over Kentucky, Indiana and UCLA last November. Garland is a true point guard who can score from anywhere on the court, though his new coach says his best trait is his ability to make other players better.
Garland will team with lightning-quick sophomore Saben Lee in a two-point-guard backcourt. Lee, the top recruit in the 2017 signing class, played his best basketball in SEC games, averaging 11.7 points while shooting over 50 percent from the floor (including just under 40 percent from 3) against league opponents.
One the wing, Vanderbilt will feature two of the top shooters in the SEC in junior Matt Ryan, a transfer from Notre Dame, and freshman Aaron Nesmith, who climbed up the recruiting rankings after a stellar senior season. “He is going to be a really, really good player,” Drew says.
Joe Toye, the team’s only senior, is a wild card. He has the ability to be a key contributor — but could also fall out of the rotation.
Sophomore Max Evans is a smallish shooting guard who earns playing time on the strength of his defense and athleticism.
It’s likely that five of the top six players in Vanderbilt’s rotation will be newcomers. That’s not normally a recipe for a quick turnaround. But the Commodores’ roster is well constructed with some big-time playmakers in the backcourt, elite shooters on the wing and versatile big men who can stretch the defense. There are too many unknowns — rebounding, low-post scoring, chemistry on the court — to project this team to be a legit contender for an SEC title, but anything short of an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a disappointment.
Postseason Prediction: Two & Out
SEC Prediction: 7th